It doesn’t happen very often, but now and again there comes a film that you just want to root for and enjoy, in spite of superficial abrasions in the narrative. “Passengers” happens to be that very film. I fell in love with this movie within the first half hour, and I can say with all honesty that I never rolled my eyes once during the course of the screening. Now that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have to employ a certain suspension of disbelief, in particular a scene in the last fifteen minutes of which I am still mulling nearly twenty-four hours after the fact. Yet, I am in awe when I have the opportunity to giddily walk away from the theater, and last night I did just that. Congratulations are in order to screenwriter Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus,” “Doctor Strange”) for making the critical side of my brain come clashing full-force with its laid-back movie-loving counterpart!
In a, perhaps, not-too distant future where the population increase on Earth becomes absolutely unmanageable, planets outside of our solar system have been cultivated for sustaining human life, the hotspot of which at the onset of our film is the conveniently-named “Homestead II.” And no, we never do find out what happened with the first settlement of its namesake. Let’s just assume that it’s all filled up! Which is why the 5000 passengers (and 538 crewmembers) in cryogenically-induced hibernation aboard the Starship Avalon, are partaking in a 120-year journey to their new home at the other end of the stars. Unfortunately, since everyone aboard is asleep, the ship’s autopilot skills seem somewhat lacking due to its fleeting collision with an asteroid. Because the Avalon’s circuitry suffers a momentary lapse, poor Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanic with dreams of a better life in the future, has the misfortune of being the inhabitant of a sole malfunctioning pod. Why is this terrible, you may ask? Well, because the Avalon has only completed one-quarter of its journey, which would leave the thirty-something Jim all alone on a ship that won’t reach its destination for another 90 years! Oh, and there’s no way that he can reenter hibernation. A lonely death sentence aboard an intergalactic cruise line, does not a good time make.
After all, this is only supposed to be a four-month journey at the tail-end of the 120 years! Oh sure, he has a bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen in a scene-stealing performance) to tell his troubles to, and while he contributes respectably to their numerous conversations, he is, of course, an android. But, with a virtual unlimited supply of alcohol (5000 people, 4 months remember?), Jim tries everything he can to make his life better, even breaking into the Presidential suite to spend his lonely nights. Yet hope is on the horizon when the hand of fate (or something) awakens a beautiful passenger named Aurora (Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence) a little over one year later. When the initial shock wears off, what is there for the last two people in “the world” to possibly do? Have as much fun as humanly possible, while pausing for the occasional predicamental lamentation! Unfortunately for the new couple, the fun is cut short when numerous critical failures begin occurring around the ship, stemming from that initial collision. Everyone knows that two heads are better than one, but will Jim and Aurora be able to save their own lives, not to mention the peacefully snoozing 5,536 other humans on board that they will never even realistically get the chance to meet?
I’m not ashamed to say that this film, owing large part to the chemistry of the two stars, hooked me like a fish. I wanted to see a budding romance between Jim and Aurora, two passengers who received the proverbial short end of the stick on the journey of a lifetime. Being the eternal optimist, I also, like Aurora, kept holding out hope that there must be a way that the two could slip back into their pods and reunite in 89 years. Concerns like these seemed trivial, however, when these two mortals took advantage of one of the Avalon’s perks – a tethered spacesuit which allowed them to experience the universe at its fullest. It was scenes like this, including more perilous ones, where I was instantly reminded of 2013’s “Gravity.” While few would argue that Director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”) has created an artwork that is aesthetically-pleasing as Alfonso Cuarón’s magnificent Oscar-winner, it does beg recognition for its amazing production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas (“Inception”), including the breathtaking CGI rendering of the Starship Avalon in all its glory. Here is a vessel that is unequaled in Science Fiction, and the ship itself, for all intents and purposes, becomes its own character and a great one at that. Interior scenes on the ship undoubtedly drew inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with the most striking similarity taking the form of a jogging Aurora, which was quite reminiscent of Frank Poole, running and air-boxing on the Discovery One.
Aside from Jim Preston’s horrendous Grizzly Adams phase onboard, I found myself amused by Pratt’s portrayal of the simple mechanic, with the actor being hilarious as usual. That is, up until a point. For narrative purposes, this mechanic had to get quite serious in the film’s second half. This caused “Passengers” to seem as if it was two different movies at times, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing – if that’s the case it turned out to be two films that I liked very much! What can I say about Jennifer Lawrence, except that she is an actress who can and will take any role she is given, and make it shine. She was funny, charming, sexy, and convincing in a role that would have floundered with anyone else at the helm. And let’s not forget about Arthur, the android with an answer for everything. Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon,” “Masters of Sex”) gives his greatest performance since his breakout role in 2007’s “Music Within,” in which he played a man with cerebral palsy, acting from the confines of a wheelchair. In “Passengers,” he doesn’t step from behind the bar (he has no legs) where he’s perpetually polishing a glass, yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. When the system failures start occurring, and Arthur malfunctions, I found myself concerned over his well-being. One can only hope that we’ll get to see more colorful and vibrant roles like this in the talented actor’s future.
Truth be told, there is an aura of implausibility that permeates throughout the last half-hour of “Passengers.” It is Science Fiction after all. Some will applaud the proceedings, others will not. Regardless, the benefits of witnessing this compelling original story (remember those?), and its three great performances, far outweigh the film’s negatives (no pun intended). Although it’s quite possible that this film will be overshadowed by being released on the heels of the much-anticipated “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Still, I can’t help but ponder the recent resurgence of exceptional Sci-Fi cinema. With great films such as “Arrival” and “Midnight Special,” along with the aforementioned “Star Wars” spin-off, “Star Trek Beyond” and Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” this beloved genre has captivated the imaginations of filmgoers worldwide (and taken the lion’s share of their box-office receipts to boot). Whether or not “Passengers” can reap some of those rewards, remains to be seen.
*** (three out of four stars)